History Of Cura

What does ‘Curating’ mean?

To ‘Curate’ is to select, organize and to look after items (in a collection or an exhibition).The work originates from the word and meaning of to ‘take care’ of something. In terms of an art exhibition, the curator is the person who controls the positioning of the artwork and keeps it under their protection. Many artists hand over their work to a curator without further discussion, leaving the curator to interpret the artwork and display it at what they feel is the most impacting way for the context. However, many artists communicate their ideas and some even take on an artist/curator role within their own practice. Because to ‘curate’ means to take care and think carefully of the positioning of particular things (mainly artwork) I will be looking into the history of Cura at times where there were no ‘curators’ progressing up until the modern curator.

Robert Hooke

Many curators are known for their care of art, however one of the first ever known Curators was Robert Hooke, during the 17th century, where he curated scientific experiments in the Royal Society in London in 1663. Hooke initially worked as an assistant to Robert Boyle, a Physicist, who he helped to construct the air pump, a theme which runs through his demonstrations. In 1667, Hooke demonstrated his experiment “Keeping a dog alive by blowing through its lungs” (Fig 1). Curating an experiment such as this needs as much thought as curating a piece of artwork. Hooke needed to place his experiment in an aesthetic way to amuse his audience and show the experiment at its most effective. This shows a cross-disciplinary between art and science and how we curate them.

L0002189 Respiration experiment on a dog

Fig 1 – Hooke, R. (1667). Keeping a dog alive by blowing through its lungs with bellows


During the 18th Century Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz, a prince from Düsseldorf, collected a vast amount of paintings where he created his own gallery in which to house them. (Fig 2)The prince chose to hang his paintings from floor to ceiling, leaving hardly any room between them. This made the viewers overwhelmed with the vast collection and wealth of the collector. His way of curating the paintings differed from the accepted style of allowing space between each artwork hugely, creating a catalogue of the paintings rather than a show.

I feel personally, that the paintings within the viewers eye-line became the more important subjects, whereas the higher up/smaller paintings because less noticeable within the vast amount of imagery.

Fig 2

Fig 2. View of the third room of the Düsseldorf Gallery; La galerie électorale de Dusseldorff. (Basel, 1778).


Many question whether curating had been around for many years before even Robert Hooke as during 1925, and Archaeologist discovered neatly organized and labelled artifacts within a Babylonian Palace which existed over 2,500 years ago curated by the princess Ennigaldi. Within the found palace, they found labelled clay cylinders which would describe the artefact/treasure it would be placed next to (Fig 3). This shows that even over 2,500 years ago, people were considering how to display such things through a means of labelling which is something curators have to do in galleries nowadays.


Fig 3. World’s earliest known museum label, Babylonian Clay Cylinder (N.d)

Marcel Duchamp

Curating is forever changing from the work of labelling in Babylonia to the work of Marcel Duchamp with his work ‘fountain’ in 1917 and worked as a curator for the exhibition ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ in 1942 where he also exhibited one of his artworks ‘Sixteen Miles of String‘ (Fig 4) whereby he covered the gallery room with string restraining entry but creating an installation in itself. The installation therefore limits the public to how they move around the gallery and therefore how they view the artwork.

Fig 4. Marcel Duchamp, 'Sixteen Miles of String' (1942)

Fig 4. Marcel Duchamp, ‘Sixteen Miles of String’ (1942)


Alfred H Barr Jr.

Alfred J Barr Was the first director/curator of MOMA, NY. He was known for being a very academic art historian. He also created the diagram of connections in art movements between 1890-1935 .An example shown below (Fig 5).


Fig 5. Alfred H Barr Jr, Diagram of Connections in Cubism and Abstract art, 1936

His first exhibition included artists such as: Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh in 1929.

Aflred's first exhibition showcasing work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat in 1929

Fig 6. Aflred H Barr Jr’s first exhibition showcasing work of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat in (1929)

Within this exhibition the paintings have been symmetrically placed within online one line with lots of space between the paintings unlike the collection shown in the Düsseldorf gallery in the 18th century. However I feel that because the center painting is larger, your eyes are drawn to it more than the others making them seem less important. As well as this, the black line above the paintings is distracting to the eyes. Within this time period, World War 2 was taking place, leaving art to become more stable and organized as a way of creating control.

Independent Group, London 1952-5 (ICA)

The Independent Group ICA

Fig 7. The Independent Group ICA, (1952)

The Independent Group consist of a collection of contemporary writers, artists and architects who met in London at the ICA (International center for Art). When creating their exhibitions they never used frames, moving away from the old traditional way of curating however they went back to displaying a lot of work but still concentrating on how they used space between each piece. A lot of their work was also placed angular-ly and when looking at the display the viewers eyes are constantly moving.

Marcia Tucker (1940-2006)

Judith Bernstein: 'HARD', 2012-2013, Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner

Fig 8. Judith Bernstein: ‘HARD’ (2012-2013), Exhibition view: New Museum.

Marcia Tucker was a well known Curator of the Whitney Museum, New York  in 1977 as well as the founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Tucker used to work within the system of curators, however the New Museum is very contemporary and vibrant breaking many of the traditional rules of curating artworks.

Harald Szeemann (1933-2005)

 A view of the Szeemann archive, with Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute. Credit: J. Paul Getty Trust

Fig 9. A view of the Szeemann archive, with Marcia Reed, chief curator at the Getty Research Institute. Credit: J. Paul Getty Trust (n.d)

Herald Szeemann was a Swiss artist who began as  a Painter but felt he could communicate art better through curating. He began through doing a lot of performance in the streets with a collaboration of artists before he left to become an independent curator working all over the world ranging from big to small exhibitions all the time. He  feels that he belongs nowhere but is everywhere and how he is constantly visiting exhibitions to talk to people to understand the artworld more. Szeemann archives absolutely everything so that the information is always there. Underneath I have listed some of the exhibitions Szeemann had created.

  • In 1961 – Head Kunsthalle Bern, when he was only 28 years old.
  • In 1957 – Painter Poets/ Poet Painters, a tribute to Hugo Ball.
  • In 1969 – Live your head : When attitude becomes form.
  • In 1972 – Documenta 5.
  • In 1980 – Aperto, Venice Biennial.

I feel Herald Szeemann shows the in order to be a good curator you need to experience every aspect of the artworld as possible, and through talking to the artists to can begin to fully understand them in order to make the best possible exhibition.

Charles and Ray EAMES (1997-78) and (1912-88)

Charles and Ray Eames

Fig 10. Charles and Ray Eames (n.d)

Charles Eames an architect and Ray Eames a painter were some of America’s most important designers during the post war era. They designed chairs, architecture, manufacturing and fine art films and are still influential to this date. Through their work, they made people look at the world differently through making work and life fun. The both felt that ‘Architect’ and ‘Painter’ were only job descriptions but not who they were and felt that they wouldn’t let this stereotype confine them creatively.

Some EAMES films:

  • The solar do nothing machine (Turning solar to electricity. In connection to science. Playful and colourful)
  • Powers of ten
  • The architect and the painter
  • House
  • 901:After 45 years of working

Within a TED talk the Grandson of Charles and Ray EAMES speaks about their lives. He spoke of how they showed and interest for overlapping everything and not stereotyping and that they lived by the rule of taking their pleasures seriously. The Eames would also spend a lot of time working with toys and creating lots of prototypes and models never taking the outcome so seriously. Within curating I feel this rule could also be placed in terms of how we consider the arrangement of art through playing around and not confining ourselves to a stereotype. They also show that it is more beneficial to not be just a ‘curator’ or an ‘artist’ but to work within all fields to be as creative as possible.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, 1968 Swiss Curator

Fig 10. Dayanita Singh's portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist, "Dream Villa 11" (2007)

Fig 11. Dayanita Singh’s portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Dream Villa 11” (2007)

Hans Ulrich Obrist is an Art Critic, Artist, Writer and Curator and is known for being called ‘The Super Curator’ and ‘The God of Planet Art’. Obrist has a huge amount of knowledge as he constantly travels and reads. He also created large archives of interviews he holds which he then turns into books and exhibitions. He even interviewed with the well known Francis Bacon and Duchamp which involved casual talking  but he found within the ‘babbling’ came important information about their work. In 1991 he held his first exhibition within his own kitchen, moving completely away from the traditional gallery space, which no one expected. Curators work very differently depending on where the exhibition is being held, and as you could technically hold an exhibitions anywhere, the possibilities become endless. Very similarly to Herald Szeemann, Obrist will go that extra mile to just talk to artists and curators as he is always curious, and at the same time letting others know who he, therefore creating a large amount of contacts which is something a good curator must always do. When creating an exhibition, Obrist lives and breathes art, and works around the context of the artwork which will always determine how the work is displayed which in my opinion creates a stronger show.

In an interview by the Observer in 2009 ‘The man who made curating an art’ they discuss how Obrist was always on the scene and down with the artists and how even at his first show based in his kitchen he worked with well known artists Christian Boltanski and the duo Fischli and Weiss. Within the interview, the observer also speaks of how Curators were not cared for much or very famous 20 years ago, and in a way I agree with this as only recently people are beginning to see the importance of the curator  beginning from the 16th century and even before up until modern day art.

Curating is forever changing from the work of labelling in Babylonia and displaying a scientific experiment such as Robert Hooke did within the 1663 , through to displaying traditional paintings in galleries and up until exhibitions based outside of the artist gallery or museum. Curators are continuously breaking the ground rules in order to create exciting and new shows.


By Kath Howard (2013)